Anita Davis finds her calling in old buildings, placemaking, purses and cornbread

by Rex Nelson (rex.nelson@simmonsfirst.com) 192 views 

Anita Davis at Downtown Little Rock's Esse Purse Museum.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper. She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 South Main St. in 2004. A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 South Main. She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous at the time and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.” She found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort to learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

BRINGING IT TO MAIN STREET
One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro. Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of Southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in other plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter. The Bernice Garden was born, a place that’s now the home to everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 South Main St.

THRIVING BUSINESSES
By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 South Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2007 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème. Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co. The Lincoln building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas. The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention. All of these businesses attract people from throughout Central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving Little Rock customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products – ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food – are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 to Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold only at the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal in nature and use local ingredients as much as possible, can been found in numerous locations, from restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market. With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following of diners.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street Grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant. Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team in Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

PURSE MUSEUM
While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she had adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle, Sacramento and Pasadena, Calif.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 South Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women,” she says.

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display – more than 250 of them – are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street. Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.” It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway. Anita Davis was in very good company.

MAKING GOOD THINGS HAPPEN
“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?’” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

· Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. Fox has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

· The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South on Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South on Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

· Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. and is a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

‘GO FOR IT’
Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make the cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.

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